Yes. It most likely is the case that your DNA “made you do it” along with a vast array of other factors that swirl around in the cauldron of human causality. So let me try to prove it to you now, by argument, that you don’t have freedom of will…
Consider, for a moment, what it actually means to say that you are the final and exclusive author of your choices – that you and nothing else constitutes the cause. Just think about how wonderfully circular that claim really is:
- X chooses Y because of X.
- You choose pancakes because of you.
Let X represent the mental state in you which causally brings about Y and let Y represent your “choice” to eat pancakes – and let’s assume, as proponents of free will certainly imply, that you are synonymous with your mental states. In other words, that you are your mental states.
The simple question then follows:
What is the cause of X?
X either has a cause or it doesn’t. It really is that plain and simple. Remember what X is in this thought experiment. X is you, or more precisely, X is the mental state cause of Y of which you are conscious at the moment you “decide” to eat pancakes. If there is a cause of X, what is that cause? Well it can’t be you because we already started with you. Remember, X chooses Y because of X is circular reasoning and must be abandoned. But if X has a cause and it can’t be you then look what we’ve established by reason alone … We’ve proved that you cannot be the cause of X. Now we must look outside of X for the cause of X and we see that the existence of free will has been refuted because we’ve completely circumvented you in the causal process.
But what if we say that X has no cause? That X is the cause of Y; but is, itself, uncaused. Sadly, the concept of an uncaused cause has no intelligible meaning. It is philosophical gibberish of the worst kind and can be properly discarded along with circular reasoning. Nietzsche dispensed with the concept of the “causa sui”, the “cause-in-itself” or “causeless cause” quite convincingly in the following:
“The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has ever been conceived, a type of logical rape and abomination. But humanity’s excessive pride has got itself profoundly and horribly entangled with precisely this piece of nonsense. The longing for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense (which, unfortunately, still rules in the heads of the half-educated), the longing to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for your actions yourself and to relieve God, world, ancestors, chance, and society of the burden – all this means nothing less than being that very causa sui and, with a courage greater than M¨unchhausen’s, pulling yourself by the hair from the swamp of nothingness up into existence.” (Beyond Good and Evil)
In short, the idea of a causeless cause belongs not in the reasonable and evidence-based world of philosophy but in the irrational and evidence-indifferent world of theology and religion.
Let’s put the traditional Free will idea like this:
FW: I am the sufficient cause of my choices and my choices are not caused by a chain of causes over which I have no control. Indeed, there are no chains of prior causes which exist as causal lineages that determine my choices at any moment. I am the lever, the pulley, the cog, the causal beginning and end.
In addition to the logical problem of causation as presented above, there is an explanatory problem with (FW):
Let’s say Jim decided to drink coffee instead of tea this morning. It will be rational to ask, ‘Why did Jim select coffee over tea?’ Or … ‘For what reason(s) did Jim select coffee over tea?’ Note something highly revealing about (FW) … In order to answer our questions it must use the language of causal lineages. In other words, it must use the language of determinism. In order to explain why Jim selected coffee over tea (FW) will need to refer to a set of prior states of affairs, reasons, desires, preferences, behaviors etc. which make Jim’s choice intelligible. But (FW) will wish to say of all of these pre-conditions that they are not causes but merely influences over which the conscious, autonomous self presides and then makes it’s choice. Rather like a judge presiding over a trial and surveying the evidence. The evidence does not cause him to form one judgement over another, but, instead, merely influences his final and completely free verdict. So it is with human brains, the proponent of FW may argue. More on this later.
Now, Jim might offer the following when questioned about his choice: “I like coffee more than tea”, he might say. Or perhaps, “I had little sleep the night before and needed more caffeine”, or “coffee goes better with my toast”. Furthermore, there may exist reasons for his selection of which he is not fully aware. Perhaps he chose coffee because he grew up in a household where drinking coffee was the norm? Or, perhaps he chose coffee because he associates a level of sophistication with coffee-drinkers that he doesn’t associate with tea-drinkers and thinks of himself as a sophisticated person? You catch my drift…
Now, does Jim have any choice about what he prefers? Really think about your preferences for a moment and the extent to which you actually have a choice about what they are. If Jim likes the taste of coffee more than he does tea, is this ‘taste preference’ something he has consciously selected? Clearly not. To argue for such would be absurd. So if our preferences are not the result of our choices and if it is Jim’s preference for coffee over tea which constitutes the salient reason for his selection, what additional explanatory power is offered by making the further claim that “Jim freely chose coffee over tea”? What does this even mean? What is it that ‘freely chosen’ can explain about Jim’s behavior that a consideration of Jim’s preferences cannot? I would argue that (FW) can explain nothing. That once you have ranged over the reasons that explain Jim’s “decision” to drink coffee over tea, nothing of any significance or of any factual import is added by making the further claim that Jim’s decision was free… No, Jim did not freely choose coffee over tea. His preference for coffee was the cause of his “choosing” coffee – a preference over which he had no control. Once the preference has been isolated as the clinching cause among various causes of Jim’s “decision” to drink coffee, a whole causal lineage has also been identified, stretching back both internally and externally from Jim and encompassing the following:
Diet history, national food trends, genetic predisposition, neurophysiology, food experiences, advertising and cultural factors, childhood development, the preferences of his peers, etc … all of which form the causal explanation for why Jim had no choice about drinking coffee this morning.
Now you might say, by way of objection, that it is possible that Jim, despite his preference for coffee, might have chosen tea this morning, which surely proves that his choice for coffee and not tea was a real and voluntary choice on his part. Well, in response, let’s imagine that instead of choosing coffee, Jim chose tea this morning and he did so of his own free will and choice. Why did he choose tea when he prefers coffee? Again, the same process ensues and the only way that (FW) can offer an explanation for Jim’s choice is to describe a set of prior conditions and states of affairs that looks identical to the explanation that a determinist would give. We might say that Jim chose tea despite his preference for coffee because coffee was giving him acid reflux, or he wanted to ensure that he had a restful nights sleep and so wanted to reduce his caffeine intake, or Jim is simply bored with coffee even though it remains his preference.
Again, by the same reasoning, does Jim have a choice about whether coffee causes him acid reflux? No. Does he have a choice about whether he desires to limit his caffeine intake so as to best ensure a good night’s sleep? No. He has no choice about experiencing the desire to limit his caffeine intake. Does Jim have a choice about finding coffee boring? No. Think about it. You can no more choose the things you find boring than you can choose the next thought you will think.
Consider the following from Sam Harris:
“Thoughts just emerge in consciousness, we are not authoring them…” To be the author of our thoughts “…would require that we think them BEFORE we think them. If you can’t control your next thought and you don’t know what it’s going to be until it arises, where is your freedom of will?”
Underneath consciousness, exists a sea of prior states of affairs about which we become conscious, but crucially, over which we have no control and which we do not author in any causal sense. Again, what explanatory power is offered by making the further claim that, despite knowing these antecedent reasons for Jim’s “choice” of tea over coffee, “Jim freely chose tea over coffee?” I submit that (FW) refutes itself when properly analyzed as it cannot explain human decision making without appealing to causal lineages and only causal lineages can explain human decision making. Introspection proves determinism and thus makes free will redundant.
So far we have seen that the concept of free will doesn’t survive logical scrutiny and is guilty of circular reasoning. Moreover, even if free will, as a concept, were logical … which it isn’t … it has no explanatory power and must use the language of determinism in order to offer an explanation of human behavior. But the proponent of free will is unlikely to concede defeat so easily and may cling to the view that the mind is much like a judge in a court case as mentioned above. The evidence has no causal power over the judge but merely influences him. His final judgment is free and undetermined by the evidence. Though he gave a guilty verdict, they would say, he was always free to render an innocent verdict instead.
But here’s the rub, my argument has demonstrated that there are really only two logical options when it comes to explaining human behavior:
1. All human behavior can be explained by genetics, childhood, psychological and sociological factors…
2. They are random acts with no explanation at all.
But note something of great importance … 1 & 2 both end up saying the same thing about human actions … that they are not free.
Okay, now the proponent of free will may say that I’ve committed the fallacy of ‘restricting the options’ and that another option is viable.
We might call the third option, ‘Origination’ and put it in the following way:
Origination holds that there are no laws, material or psychological, which determine how a human being will act and that human actions have an original, undetermined, causal power which is absolute. Sounds a bit like the mystical, vaguely theological ’causeless cause’ doesn’t it?
But here’s the main problem, as I see it, with ‘origination’ and the ‘judge’ counter-analogy … How do we explain the “decision” of the judge without falling back into options 1 and 2? Well, we can’t … and again, just like (FW) above, ‘origination’ is both logically circular and completely impotent to explain human behavior.
So … I’ve demonstrated what philosophy has to say about the concept of freewill, but Philosophy doesn’t matter much right? What does science have to say about the existence of free will?
Science has demonstrated, almost beyond reasonable doubt, that the conscious part of our brain plays no active part in ‘decision making’ but that, instead, unconscious regions of the brain ‘select’, ‘decide’ and ‘choose’ seconds before we become consciously aware of having ‘made a decision’. Test subjects, hooked up to an EEG, were presented with a simple decision to press one of two buttons and told that they could take their time to decide but must make a note of the time when they became aware of having made their decision.
Results showed that there was unconscious brain activity in the secondary motor cortex anywhere from up to seven seconds before the subject becomes consciously aware of their decision to press the button. This was confirmed by neuroscientists when they were able to interpret the neurological data and successfully predict what decision their subjects would make before they were even aware of having made their decision.
Soon et al. make the case that:
“…the subjective experience of freedom is no more than an illusion and that our actions are initiated by unconscious mental processes long before we become aware of our intention to act… There’s not very much space for operation of free will. The outcome of a decision is shaped very strongly by brain activity much earlier than the point in time when you feel to be making a decision.”
In conclusion, you don’t have free will. I know it seems like you do and up until recent times, all human civilizations have been built on this most intuitive metaphysical assumption about the kind of creatures we are. But remember, it wasn’t that long ago that we apes labored under some pretty remarkable assumptions about our lowly origins that we have since discarded in light of new evidence: that the earth was 6000 years old, for example, that man was created by the gods spontaneously and that in each of us there resides an immaterial soul.
Freedom of will, as a concept, is not logical. It has no explanatory power without collapsing into determinism and it has now been refuted by advances in neuro-scientific experimentation which demonstrate that our conscious life … you know, that place in your mind where you reside and where you believe you make all of your decisions … well, it’s just not true. Consciousness is merely neurological commentary. That’s all it is. That’s all you are.
Soon, Brass, Heinze & Haynes. “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain” Science 2008.
4 thoughts on “You Don’t Have Free Will”
Terrific post. Well said.
B1 and B2 are two brothers who decided to blow up some people at the Boston Marathon in 2013. Because of they were the final responsible cause of death and harm to many people, we are less concerned about what caused B1 and B2 than we are about what B1 and B2 caused (and what they plan to cause next: more harm after traveling to New York in an SUV they hijacked using the driver (D1) who they forced at gunpoint to aid them in their travels).
The issue is what causes are relevant, significant, meaningful, and correctible. So the first thing we want to do is arrest the bomber (one of them was killed in the chase) and make sure he is incapacitated from causing further harm.
After dealing with the immediate threat, we may be interested in what caused B1 and B2 to bomb the Boston Marathon.
And a key cause of their action was a collection of ideas and thoughts that were going around in their heads, and which resulted in them deciding to deliberately build and set off their bombs. Because until we can be reasonably certain that those mental processes will not cause further harm, the bomber must remain in prison.
But what about D1? (The driver who aided their escape) How do we keep D1 from going around and aiding other criminal in their escape? Do we also put him in prison?
Why would we treat B1 and D1 differently? — And here is where the concept of free will enters the world of rational thought. D1 had no thoughts of aiding criminals. He was forced against his will, literally at gunpoint, to assist the bombers in their escape. So all that we need to do to correct D1’s future behavior is to remove the gun from his head, and let him go about his business.
But B1, who acted deliberately, “of his own free will”, did so for a number of reasons that he may still be holding onto. Changing his future will requires something more significant.
But, you may be asking, “What about C?” (you know the cosmic event that created the universe during the Big Bang). Well, there’s not much we can do about that. The only causes we can address are those that we can get our hands on. Prior causes become less and less relevant the farther back you go.
Neither B1 nor D1 caused themselves. So what? A cause of something else need not cause itself to be a relevant or responsible cause of something else.
Excellent article. I was convinced some time ago that free will was an illusion but I’ve never heard the circular reasoning argument put so well.